Presented with the perfect chance to pull themselves back up, the Blue Devils instead found themselves falling deeper.
Under the glimmering lights Sunday night at Koskinen Stadium, No. 16 Duke failed to find the back of the net, settling for a 0-0 draw against N.C. State. The home team played without three of its starters, who were sidelined due to recent injuries.
This draw meant more than just a wasted win opportunity, however. It was a failed attempt to seal the program’s 250th all-time win at Koskinen. It also broke the team’s five-game scoring streak in the first half at home.
“It is frustrating that we let them get away,” said head coach Robbie Church. “We have to be more dangerous in the final third [and] we [have] to take chances.”
From the opening whistle, Kat Rader was eager to score her sixth goal of the season. The sophomore sensation tracked down the Wolfpack’s defense, eventually stealing the ball away. With a couple swift dribbles, she created enough space for the team’s first shot of the game, but missed wide to the right. The reigning ACC Freshman of the Year finished with a game-high four shots.
Riding on momentum, the Blue Devils (5-3-1, 1-1-1 in the ACC) continued to apply pressure in their offensive third. In response, a less-cohesive N.C. State (1-5-5, 0-1-2) struggled to retain and advance the ball — passes from its back four were often hit too long and runs mistimed.
In the few times it did manage to find attacking players in space, Duke remained under control. At the heart of the defense was its savior in blue, Maggie Graham — the holding midfielder was not only first to every loose ball but unafraid to use her frame to win back possession.
On the ball, the Atlanta native remained poised, finding pockets of space to build up from. Her grace on the ball made up for the relative lack of experience on the injury-ridden back line. She didn’t hesitate to drop down to collect the ball from the center backs and delicately dispense it to running wide players.
“Graham slid into place and played really, really well tonight,” Church said. “Really proud of what Maggie did tonight. I thought she was excellent.”
Graham’s on-the-ball brilliance shined brightest on the offensive end. Aside from a missile of a shot from Elle Piper that was stopped by a diving Olivia Pratapas, the Blue Devils’ best first-half chances came from Graham. Late in the first half, she drilled a shot from beyond the 18-yard box and shortly thereafter, the senior elevated for a header that floated inches above the crossbar. Graham finished the game with three shots.
Where Duke had Graham, N.C. State had Jameese Joseph.
The Beltsville, Md., native’s pace and prowess put the Blue Devils in a couple of uncomfortable situations. In every transition, Joseph put her head down and used her dribbling ability to get around defenders, quickly bringing the ball toward the goal. Only when two or three defenders latched on her did Duke successfully win the ball back.
“There were two or three times that she got herself free,” Church said of Joseph. “She’s a really really good player … She's not gonna combine with a lot of people. She's just gonna get it and she’s just gonna go.”
In the 86th minute, a well-placed pass by N.C. State’s Emika Kawagishi found the feet of a running Joseph. Four blue shirts stealthily shadowing her, the forward encroached the penalty box, only to be tripped by a recovering Nicky Chico.
The Wolfpack was awarded a free kick after the foul was deemed to have occurred just outside the penalty box. A bending kick by Annika Wohner slashed the side of the net as Chico let out a sigh of relief.
As for Duke, its surplus of shots eventually crescendoed into near-game-winning chances in the final minutes.
A dashing Grace Watkins was hit from behind by a trailing Leyah Hall-Robinson inside the box — a potential penalty uncalled. Mia Minestrella found the back of the net with under seven minutes of play, but mere inches in front of the defensive line, however, she was deemed to be in an offside position.
By the conclusion of the match, Duke had dominated N.C. State in virtually every statistic: 19 shots to six, four corner kicks to two and 61 percent possession to 39. But one number — the most important — was the same: zero goals scored.
“We've dug ourselves into our hole and we kind of get to choose whether or not to dig ourselves out,” Graham said. “And I think … there needs to be a fire in our stomach that we don't really have right now.”
After two underwhelming performances at home, Duke will look to get back in the win column against Virginia Sunday.
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